The East Carolina University Chamber Singers, augmented by the ECU Early Music Ensemble, presented a good performance of J.S. Bach's Ascension Oratorio (Oratorium In Festo Ascensionis), S.11, at St. Paul's Episcopal Church. As has been the case with previous concerts by the choral ensemble this season, the young singers demonstrated both musical skill and enthusiasm for the material that contributed to a fine listening experience for the audience.
The Early Music Ensemble, an eight-year-old group that plays on period string instruments and reproductions of period wind instruments, performs two or three times a year under the direction of Thomas Huener and John B. O'Brien. For this program, the ensemble also performed on its own in a Bach Sinfonia, S.146, and the familiar Orchestral Suite No. 3, S.1068.
The small group for the one-movement Sinfonia (three violins, viola, cello, violone and two oboes, plus organ and harpsichord) played well without a conductor. Especially notable were lead violinist Ann Loud and cellist Barbara Krumdieck, and the oboe lines were beautifully played by Meg Owens and David Hawkins.
The Orchestral Suite No. 3, which contains the familiar "Air," had moments of beauty and joy, but there were also times when the playing sounded a bit muddy in the cavernous space of St. Paul's. In the opening Overture, for instance, the treble lines did not come through as prominently, and there appeared to be some intonation difficulties in the valveless baroque trumpets. Some tuning problems also crept into the strings before the end of the movement.
The Air received a lovely reading, neither too fast nor too draggy, and the harpsichord behind the strings offered a sympathetic foundation for the movement. In the two lively Gavottes, the horns had much better tone, and the Bouree had the sound of a country dance, not a courtly or stately minuet. The well-known Gigue closed out the piece in fine fashion.
The Ascension Oratorio, a cantata-like composition, calls for chorus and several soloists as well as instrumentalists, as it recounts the Ascension story from several viewpoints in Scripture and verse. Bach completed the work in 1735, borrowing bits and pieces from other composers along the way. The Chamber Singers performed the work in German.
The Evangelist, or narrator, was sung by tenor Aaron Carlyle, whose strong voice could be heard clearly in each of his four recitatives, which are based on Scripture from Luke, Mark and Acts. Tenor Anthony Maglione and bass Gary Harwell joined Carlyle in the seventh movement for a lovely trio, and bass Christian Waugh had a fine solo recitative in the third movement. Soprano Shelley Maddox had a lovely voice for the eighth movement, but the thread of the vocal line faltered either in the accompaniment or in her singing near the end, before she made a nice recovery to finish.
The loveliest vocal portions in the piece came from alto Katy Avery, who sang two portions of the text ("Ah, just stay, my dearest Life" and "Ah yes! Then come back soon") in a beautifully pure tone.
The four chorus movements were splendid, from the joyful opening ("Praise God in his riches") and its tricky soprano runs through Johann Rist's familiar chorale in the sixth movement (which might be recognizable as the Christmas hymn, "Break Forth, O Beauteous Heavenly Light") to the nicely flowing last movement, borrowed from Gottfried Wilhelm Sacer. The soprano section deserves special mention for the well-articulated lead melody lines throughout, especially in the first chorus.
Dan Bara led the chorus and instrumentalists well, with clearly indicated and precise rhythms, timing and dynamics.